New details surrounding two Trump administration Cabinet officials’ expenditures to spruce up their offices came to light this week, demonstrating more direct involvement and higher spending totals than previously suspected.
Emails obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight show Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and his wife Candy, both personally played a role in choosing dining furniture for his office. The purchase came under scrutiny for its $31,000 price tag, and Carson has subsequently canceled the order.
HUD has stated the purchase was made solely by career officials and the Carsons were taken by surprise when they later learned about the hefty price. In one email, Jacie Coressel, HUD’s director of scheduling, asked Candy if she could come into the office when a designer would be evaluating the secretary’s office to discuss new furniture. Coressel offered to find another time for Mrs. Carson to meet with the designer if the proposed dates did not work. In other emails, an administrative officer told a colleague that Candy wanted to see furniture used by previous secretaries while the secretary wanted to “look at furniture in the basement.”
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
Months later, the same assistant said that a colleague “has print outs of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.” The same email chain showed individual pricing estimates for a table, chairs and various other pieces of furniture that totaled nearly $25,000. After delivery and other adjustments, the total cost jumped to $31,000.
Raffi Williams, a HUD spokesman, declined to get into the details of the apparent discrepancy between the emails and department comment that the Carsons were taken by complete surprise by the furniture order.
“When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles,” Williams said.
When discussing the existing office furniture prior to Carson’s swearing in, Maren Kasper, a former senior adviser to Carson, told the assistant she was already worried the new secretary would not be a fan. “Someone should also caution how heavy the chairs are which he may not be pleased with,” Kasper said.
Other emails show HUD staff asking whether the department could pay for a personal security system to be set up at the Carsons’ home.
American Oversight also released a series of invoices and emails they received regarding the installation of a soundproof booth connected to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office. Original cost estimates for the booth came out to $25,000, but the new invoices show EPA spent thousands of dollars more on contracts for its installation. The invoices included agreements of more than $3,000 each with three companies to paint walls, pour concrete and install a drop ceiling. The Washington Post also identified a nearly $8,000 contract EPA procured to remove equipment from the closet to make room for the booth.
Pruitt has defended the “privacy booth” as necessary to perform his job, saying it functioned as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. He uses the renovated closet to conduct private communications, EPA has said.
The agency’s inspector general told lawmakers in December that it would “not second-guess decisions about matters within the discretion of the agency,” but would investigate whether the booth purchase complied with appropriations laws. The IG subsequently said due to funding shortfalls it was passing the investigation on to the Government Accountability Office, which is currently probing the purchase.
The emails, which American Oversight obtained via a federal records request and subsequent lawsuit to compel their release, also showed Pruitt spent nearly $3,000 on a “captain’s desk” and $2,000 on repairs to an existing desk. The fixes included matching the color to a sample chosen by “the customer.”